Watching Brady-Manning XIV, being catapulted into overtime and into the night, enjoying the epic-ness of it all, I could not help but reflect upon how meaningless it was.
Oh, it was not meaningless in the historic sense: these guys have earned their Roman numerals and accolades. From the 24-0 start to the Patriots 31-point second-half explosion, to Peyton Manning's storyline-redefining fourth-quarter comeback drive, to the overtime full of punts and reversals, to Stephen Gostkowski's overtime field goal for a 34-31 win, Sunday night's game was a time capsule representation of what Tom Brady and Peyton Manning meant to a generation of fans. It was Brady-Manning XIV, XV and XVI in one.
It was not meaningless in the existential everything is meaningless sense because Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, the Patriots, Broncos and Colts have brought joy and inspiration to the lives of countless fans, making their matchups as meaningful as any human endeavor. What brings more fulfillment and direction to our culture: Brady and Manning dueling for 70-plus minutes or whatever the heck Miley Cyrus did in last night's award show? Both spectacles say something about our society, I suppose, but I would only show one of them to visiting aliens. Unless the aliens were cats.
It wasn't even meaningless from a playoff tiebreaker standpoint. The Patriots win keeps them in position for a first-round bye and home playoff game, though their head-to-head loss to the Bengals remains troublesome. The Broncos were unable to gain a game on the Chiefs and now need a head-to-head win next week to eliminate the likelihood of a nightmare scenario: a record in the 13-3 range, and a road playoff game in the first round.
No, Brady-Manning XIV was meaningless for the simple reason that both teams will make the playoffs with no difficulties. Losses by the Chiefs, Dolphins and Jets straightened the path to division titles for both teams, so even though both teams craved a win, each could absorb the loss. Brady-Manning XIV was the 14th matchup of two quarterbacks who always have something bigger on their agendas than their 14 matchups.
The Patriots and Broncos are members of the NFL's Magnificent Seven. They are mortal playoff locks, along with the Chiefs, Panthers, Saints, Seahawks and 49ers, though the Niners may soon become probationary members. Seven playoff berths are nearly chiseled, and the Colts would have to live down to their worst instincts to lose theirs (still highly possible), leaving four berths available to the approximately 64 teams still mathematically alive.
Actually, there are 20 teams, besides the Magnificent Seven, with a chance for a winning record and a playoff berth if the right combination of meteor strikes occurs. There are 15 five-win teams with non-ridiculous claims to such prizes as the NFC East crown or the second wild-card berth in the AFC (the Chiefs or Broncos claiming the first). With all of these hopefuls, there are still dozens of "playoff atmosphere" type games on the upcoming schedule. While Brady and Manning battled for tiebreakers and possible home playoff games, these upcoming matchups of Matthew Stafford, Ryan Tannehill and Carson Palmer types will each feature two teams playing for their lives.
Let's look at seven upcoming games which, believe it or not, will have far greater postseason implications than Sunday's Broncos-Patriots gem. The games are ranked in order of ugly. To make things interesting, no divisional games were selected: no Eagles-Cowboys or Ravens-Steelers. These weird matchups of deeply flawed teams may look like bruised apples at the bottom of the bushel, but if you miss them, you may not know what is going on in January.
7. Bengals at Chargers, Dec. 1, 4:25 p.m.
In a nutshell: It will be like the Freezer Bowl game, but without Dan Fouts, Ken Anderson, Kellen Winslow, Cris Collinsworth (he's stuck covering a Giants-Redskins game) or cold weather.
Chargers Sunday update: Like the pilgrims planting fish heads to fertilize corn, the Chargers have started to figure out the red zone. On one drive in their 41-38 thriller over the Chiefs, they actually handed off twice to Ryan Mathews inside the 20-yard line! Mathews did not fumble and the sun did not fall from the sky: In fact, Mathews actually scored a touchdown. Later, they went back to their old trick of giving Danny Woodhead the ball on the three-yard line, but at least the first-down handoff came from a shotgun-spread formation, instead of the usual short yardage sausage grinder. Woodhead quickly darted beneath the plane of the goal line as only he can.
The Chargers caught a break when both Tamba Hali and James Houston left the game for the Chiefs, who discovered life is very different when the opposing quarterback is healthy and their pass rush is not. No quarterback in the world threads perfect passes to open receivers with a motion that looks like he just had surgical pins removed from his shoulder quite like Philip Rivers. His game-winning touchdown to Seyi Ajirotutu was one of many Rivers passes that looked like they were ejected from a malfunctioning soda machine but still arrived on-time and on target.
Bengals Sunday update: Bye week. Seven blissful days of not watching Andy Dalton throw five yards out of bounds.
Early Llean: The Chargers are better than the rest of the sixth-seed AFC fodder and not as self-destructive as the Bengals. Now that they score seven points instead of three after long drives, they can be very dangerous.
6. Ravens at Lions, Monday Night Football, Dec. 16, 8:40 p.m.
In a nutshell: The team that refuses to win the NFC North versus the team that refuses to lose the AFC North.
Lions Sunday update: Sunday's game was the classic example of the Lions battling themselves while the opponent stood around and waited for mistakes, like seagulls waiting for a tourist to drop a boardwalk pretzel. The Lions had 25 first downs to the Buccaneers 10 and ran 72 plays to the Bucs' 49. The Bucs offense essentially amounted to two productive plays, one of them an 85-yard Mike Glennon-to-Tiquan Underwood gem. (If you haven't noticed, Glennon has one of the strongest arms in the NFL). But the Buccaneers won 24-21 thanks to four Matthew Stafford interceptions, a blocked punt and a Kris Durham fumble. Give the Buccaneers defense credit -- Leonard Johnson read Stafford's eyes and body language all the way to the ball on a pick-6 before half -- but Johnson would not have intercepted the pass if Stafford had not led him to the ball in the first place.
After a few weeks of smart football, Stafford and the Lions are back to trading two brilliant plays for one idiotic one. That ratio will get them killed.
Ravens Sunday update: The Ravens' 19-3 win over the Jets will be immortalized in a novel titled The Wind and the Wildcats. Geno Smith looked awful, but while the Jets deployed their Josh Cribbs Wildcat a few times, they were only slightly more committed to it than they were in past, weather-neutral games. Perhaps it's because the Cribbs' wildcat is usually deployed immediately after a positive Smith play as a way to destroy his confidence. Smith had no positive plays on Sunday (mission accomplished!) so Rex Ryan and Marty Mornhinweg had no idea when to use Cribbs.
Meanwhile, the Ravens used Tyrod Taylor as a counterpunch to the struggling Joe Flacco on an afternoon of persistent 25-mph winds. Taylor provided some read-option diversity to the Ravens attack, but something about wildcat strategies makes coaches crazy, and soon Taylor was catching screen passes and running an end-around for a loss of seven. John Harbaugh snapped out of his trance just long enough to order Flacco to throw a 66-yard touchdown to Jacoby Jones while the wind was still at his back, and the Ravens enjoyed one of their typically brutal wins.
Also, there was a Nut Fumble, and Justin Tucker channeled Ray Lewis by way of Chi-Chi Rodriquez. But more of that here.
Early lean: What's worse: the Ravens on the road or the Lions in a meaningful game? It's a tough call, but the Ravens are as good at winning ugly as the Lions are at losing ugly.
5. Cardinals at Titans, Sunday, Dec. 15, 1 p.m.
In a nutshell: If they switched divisions, the Cardinals would be 10-1 and the Titans would be completely ignored by everyone. So really, only one team would notice the difference.
Cardinals Sunday update: The Colts learned this month that spotting a bad opponent a 17-3 or 21-3 lead is OK, but spotting a pretty good one a 27-3 lead is a pretty bad idea. The Colts could not break out of their trance on either side of the ball this time.
The Cardinals defense is excellent, but their offense had a surprising afternoon in what blossomed into a 40-11 win. Rashard Mendenhall ran hard, finally making some sense of his platoon with Andre Ellington. Carson Palmer was 16 of 21 in the first half and looked comfortable distributing the football, not just to Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd, but to tight end Rob Housler and the backs. This was the good Bruce Arians offense, as opposed to the bad one, which is just a bunch of sacks.
How much of the Cardinals' offensive production was growth on their part, and how much was Colts confusion? It's hard to tell (when the Colts are good, they are great, but when they are bad they are essentially the Jaguars), and it's a critical question. The Cardinals face a brutal upcoming schedule: at Philly, Rams, this game, at Seattle and 49ers. Defense alone will only get them a string of 13-10 losses.
Titans Sunday update: The Titans beat the Raiders 23-19 in the most forgettable way possible. Games like this are the reason we are talking about teams like the Titans (and Ravens and Steelers and Chargers and …) as playoff hopefuls. It's a round robin where everyone gets a win against everyone else to stay around .500, planks supporting planks that supported the first plank. The Titans play fairly stingy defense and get enough from Ryan Fitzpatrick to win once in a while. In the AFC, for that final playoff berth, that may be enough.
Early lean: The Cardinals will smoke the Titans. For all the good it will do them.
4-3-2. Cowboys at Bears, Dec. 9 (Monday Night); Packers at Cowboys, Dec. 15, 4:25 p.m.; Bears at Eagles, Dec. 22, 1 p.m.
In a nutshell: The Dooley's Farmstead Fortified Peach Wine Holiday Invitational Tournament Showdown between the teams you cannot believe are leading the NFC East and the teams you cannot believe can still win the NFC North.
Cowboys Sunday update: The Cowboys did a lot of things right on Sunday. They finally drove a stake through the heart of the Giants playoff hopes, which probably came as more of a relief than a source of frustration to Giants fans. They overcame their Dez Bryant mental block. They won a game on the road in windy conditions; sometimes the Cowboys have to prove to themselves as much as anyone else that they are not hothouse flowers.
Of course, they also built a 21-6 lead against a weak opponent and just stopped, allowing the Giants to drive down the field for two touchdowns to tie the game while goofing off for three second-half drives that netted a total of 13 yards. Brandon Myers' touchdown, with two Cowboys defenders watching him as he climbs to his feet after a diving catch and lumbers into the end zone, was the stuff of Cowboys judgment lapse nightmares.
If you were looking for a late-game Tony Romo choke, you had to look elsewhere, because Romo engineered a crisp 14-play, 4:45 second game-winning drive. If you were looking for an emphatic "statement game" from a Cowboys team that plans to seize control of the division, you needed to stop watching at the 6:46 mark of the third quarter. This was NFC Eek weak sauce, with the least weak team prevailing.
Bears Sunday update: The Bears were on the losing end of the epic 42-21 Josh McCown-Kellen Clemens shootout against the Rams. The Rams are the Colts of the NFC. Like the Cardinals they would probably have a very different record in the AFC South. As it stands, they have periodic Ramgasms where all the stuff that is supposed to work for them -- a nasty defensive line, a knack for turnovers, Tavon Austin's big play ability -- actually works in unison. The Bears helped matters along with Matt Forte and Devin Hester fumbles, a goal-line stuffing, and a run defense that gets worse and worse every week.
Packers Sunday update: The Packers are covered here. All you really need to know for now is that the Packers tied the Vikings, we're in Matt Flynn territory, and Aaron Rodgers is going to look like an archangel floating down from heaven carrying a plate of Buffalo wings when he returns to the field.
Eagles Sunday update: The Eagles got a big bye week break when Michael Vick made lots of soothing noises about how well Nick Foles is playing and how accepting he is in the backup role. Having made some of the most unwise decisions in human history, Vick has encountered some kind of gravitational slingshot and starts sounding wiser and wiser every time he speaks. (Remember: he was one of the lone voices of reason in the Riley Cooper saga). Eighteen hundred years from now, Vick will be remembered as a kind of Saint Augustine.
Early lean: The Cowboys have the most healthy talent base of these four teams. The Eagles may be the strongest overall team. But Aaron Rodgers is the best player, and he will probably be back for the Cowboys game. (Jay Cutler will also be back soon, but it may not matter if the Bears are allowing 258 rushing yards per game, especially when Kelly gets a gander at the Rams footage). The Eagles may leave this tournament as winners. Somehow, the Lions will end up the losers.
1. Dolphins at Steelers, Sunday, Dec. 8, 1 p.m.
In a nutshell: The feel-good happy smile time family event of the season.
Dolphins Sunday update: Things were going well until halftime. The Dolphins defense looked fantastic, with Dion Jordan coming off the bench to hustle down Cam Newton a few times, while the offense scored 16 points with the help of two long passes from Ryan Tannehill to Mike Wallace. That's right, folks: Jordan and Wallace made big plays for the Dolphins! All week, the team has been under heavy investigation for the Richie Incognito scandal. You can picture the investigators walking up to Joe Philbin and saying, "by the way, do you know that Mike Wallace and Dion Jordan are on your payroll?" Philbin snaps his fingers in the universal shoot, I knew I forgot something gesture, and the next thing you know the Panthers have poor Captain Munnerlyn isolated in single coverage against a wide receiver who might as well have been running fly routes in the parking lot for three months.
But all Dolphins losses look alike: They score 16-23 points, and everyone takes the rest of the afternoon off, starting with the offensive line. The names may change every week on the Dolphins line, but the results are the same, with Tannehill getting drilled and running for his life on every fourth quarter pass attempt. The Dolphins kept giving Cam Newton additional chances to win the game, and the new Newton (with the help of Mike Tolbert, who becomes John Riggins when close to the goal line) does not need that many chances.
The Panthers won 20-16, but nothing short of a Congressional hearing will keep the Dolphins out of the playoffs. Of course, a Congressional hearing might happen, the way things are going.
Steelers Sunday update: Browns game, 20 degrees, 30 mph winds. Jason Campbell gets injured, leading to the Brandon Weeden Experience. Weeden apparently has never experienced wind before; he actually threw a few seven-yard passes which were five yards off target, stretching the combined limits of credulity, patience, meteorology and the Pythagorean Theorem.
It got so bad that the Browns inserted Forest Whitaker at running back. Yes, the 52-year old star of Ghost Dog and The Last King of Scotland got six carries to gain 16 yards. Whitaker's a bulky guy, built more like a lineman, but he probably provides a slow rushing option that complements Weeden's off-target passing. (My copy editors tell me that the backup Browns running back is actually Fozzy Whitaker, as if that is somehow better.)
The Steelers just had to complete one Antonio Brown touchdown pass, play defense and wait for the game to end. They are great at that. Steelers-Ravens on Thanksgiving Night with playoff implications, everyone! Make sure you have that extra glass of wine, tryptophan-laden turkey leg, some elephant tranquilizers and a mallet to the forehead before kickoff!
Early lean: Please, oh please, some better team rise up and claim the sixth playoff berth. What, you mean there are no clearly better AFC teams? And we cannot give it to the Cardinals or someone? Sigh. Let's go Chargers.
Nut fumbles? Long family violence? Scott Tolzien video game moves? Week 12 featured too many great plays to fit into one Mandatory Monday article. Click here for more of Sunday's wackiest, most memorable moments!